Universal, or inclusive, design  is the design of products or services that are accessible by as many people as reasonably possible. It's a mindset and a methodology you need to adopt and embed into your entire design and development process. It means designing each piece of content to be accessible by those with and those without disabilities or other limiting factors:
While an argument can be made for specialized design for specific disabilities or groups, universal design is more efficient and more effective. The number of people with disabilities or limiting factors are growing, and rarely will we have time to design for all of them. Wouldn't you prefer a single solution that was accessible by all and met the needs of all learners? The Design Council says, "Now the focus is on better mainstream solutions for everyone, supported by new design research techniques to make the development process more user-centred."
Switching to universal design can be easy, but it's certainly not something you can simply do to your training or performance support. It has to be part of the entire process, from the beginning. While some will make the argument that you can never achieve truly universal design, it's certainly worth your best effort, don't you think? Think of the benefits:
- Meeting the needs of the widest possible audience with a single solution
- Increased compatibility with assistive technologies
- Improved usability and accessibility for all users
- Greater accessibility in multiple environments
- Easier maintenance and content management
Something I use to help design accessible content is the Inclusive Design Toolkit, which includes a framework for modeling product interaction and assessing capability levels. I recommend reviewing the User Capabilities section of their website so you better understand the potential diversity of your audience, and dive deeper into thinking, communication, dexterity, reach and movement.
IDEO Method Cards are another tool you can use to start thinking about universal design. A simple collection of cards helps designers empathize with and better understand the people they are designing for. Use these cards as a simple activity with leaders of your organization to raise awareness and show the impact that can be made. IDEO designed these cards to be used by researchers, designers, and engineers to evaluate and select the empathic research methods that best inform specific design initiatives. Whatever role you play in your organization, you can use these to improve your overall design and start to shift to a universal design approach. They've created an iPhone App as well.
I understand you won't be able to switch to universal design overnight. I understand barriers are everywhere. I understand you may not think this matters. I understand these things because I've been there, and in some cases, I'm still there. But consider the people. All of them. Consider those using your product or service. Be mindful of an entire audience you've never thought about before. And design not specifically for them, but to include them. Design for all.
The Design Council has some case studies you can review. I'd love to hear from anyone who has adopted universal/inclusive design principles and successfully implemented them in a project. Let me know in the comments or email me. Your experience is worth sharing!
Sources and resources:
 The British Standards Institute (2005) defines inclusive design as "The design of mainstream products and/or services that are accessible to, and usable by, as many people as reasonably possible ... without the need for special adaptation or specialised design."